New Zealand’s North Island Magic

North Island Magic

Richard here – Carolyn did a great job on the New Zealand entries, but I’d like to add a few more posts from the rough notes that I took along the way as well. Recognizing that it’s been a while since our last post, we’ll be working hard over the next few days to get caught up on our posts. We’re trying to use our downtime along the way (which isn’t much, surprisingly!) to reflect on our observations and experiences in each country in a little more detail before it fades into the fog of memory. Also, we’re backdating these posts to the time we were there so that things the posts stay in order. 

New Zealand is stunning. Everyone says it, you read about it, see pictures but unlike the hype of many destinations, this place exceeds the reputation. We rented a modest sized camper van for the four of us to see the natural wonder and diversity of the place and started in the far north, in a place cleverly called Northland. Over our five week journey we wound all the way down to the southernmost part of the South island to a place called, you guessed it – Southland. At absolutely every turn, rise and crest, diverse and splendid landscapes unfolded. Energetic rivers led to endless numbers of waterfalls, stunning mountain backdrops and winding ocean cliff faces. As with other parts of the world where tectonic plates subduct and grind past each other, NZ has an “active” landscape, meaning that at any time major calamity can strike and alter the physical landscape in swift, dramatic fashion. This is a curse and a gift. The curse is that humans living on the land and by the sea can be subjected to volcanic eruption, landfalls, shattering earthquakes and crushing tsunami. The gift is that the multi-faulted, volcanic landmasses of the two main islands are bestowed with magnificent mountains, deep gorges, nutrient rich rivers, sheer cliffs, stunning fjords, welling hot springs and endless caves. This physical bounty is packaged within two modest sized islands (about the combined size of Canada’s Atlantic provinces) therefore making the multiplicity of landscapes highly accessible to those willing to spend a few weeks in a motor vehicle.

Our journey started in the warm northernmost part of the country where temperate rainforest and rushing rivers dominate. The pretty tourist town of Whangarei was where we experienced the first, of an almost countless number of picturesque waterfalls. The altogether pleasant experience of watching huge volumes of water cascade off a 20 metre cliff was quickly followed up by a hike into a towering Kauri forest. These stands of ancient trees, found only in a few small parts of the North island, continue to eek out an existence despite the pressures of relentless urban development and relatively poor northern soils. Their life spans, measured in centuries, are possible because of abundant rainfall and moderate temperatures brought on by a high latitude and proximity to subtropical ocean currents. We loved traipsing through the cool, dark, mature woods, taking in the weird and wonderful flora of New Zealand. In addition to the outsized Kauri trees, which can reach heights of 40 to 50 metres and have trunk diameters big enough to rival California Sequoias at over 5 meters, NZ is known the world over for its massive and various ferns. Forty per cent of these occur nowhere else in the world. The largest species reach 20m, so it was a real Gulliver’s moment for us to stand below and gaze up at the canopy of a huge plant that looked identical in form to the two foot fronds growing in our backyard at home.

From the north we cruised in our new home on wheels to the lovely Coromandel peninsula. The coastal geology with its mix of ancient sedimentary and young volcanic rocks, continuously eroded by the pounding Pacific, is some of the most ruggedly beautiful shorelands in the country. This setting is so atmospherically potent that it was featured in one of the Narnia films. Cathedral cove was a big hit for us and the walk down from the 100m high cliff top to the white sand beaches below, littered with columns of sandstone and massive wave carved arches, provided a stunning panorama of the adjacent coastal lowlands and dozens of dotted islands.

After time on the coast we steered inland into hobbit country, where the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed. Visiting the set was great fun and we all marvelled at the intricate details worked into the large Hobbiton village. Here, preserved for as long as visitors care to keep coming, is the fantastic world first penned by J.R.R Tolkien and then captured on film by Peter Jackson, one of New Zealand’s favourite sons. The rolling green hills of the central North island are ideally formed and naturally sculpted to stand in as The Shire. When looking out over the hobbit hills one can almost hear the magical giggles of middle earth’s inhabitants ringing through the air. Though it might also have been the giggles of glee expressed by the Kiwi family who own the farm where the complex is situated. Judging from the size of the car park alone, the family will not need to rely on the sweat of their brows for some generations to come.

After the homes of hobbits it made sense to us to discover some of the other landscapes featured in LOTR, specifically the awesome mount Ruapehu, known to Tolkien fans as the subtly named Mount Doom. This active volcano is the heart of Tongariro National Park. Ruapehu, the largest active volcano in New Zealand, is the highest point on the North Island. The deep, active crater, between its three main peaks, fills with a crater lake between major eruptions (most recently in 2007). We scrambled up the scrubby brush laden lower slopes, zig zagging up a marked track in order to take in views many kilometers in all directions and getting a lovely glimpse of the main peaks. It seemed only an arm’s length to reach out and touch the tallest glacier capped summit and our perch afforded a majestic view of the long winding road leading up to the park, pleasantly guiding the eye to the far horizon.

From the large stratocone of Ruapehu we moved on to the geothermally active caldera lands of the lake Rotorua region. This whole area, a hundred square kilometers, was formed by the collapse of a single massive volcanic magma chamber. Thankfully that eruption was some 200 000 years back and not likely to blow again any time soon BUT lodged in my mind the whole time we were touring the area was the knowledge that when this giant erupts again it will spell the end of all human life NATION wide. Truly mind numbing destructive power. As a result of all that massive heat bubbling below the surface the whole area is geothermally active, creating a treasure trove of hot springs, mud pools and geysers. We toured along the highway darting off to visit various thermal walks. We loved hiking through sulphur misted air, gingerly stepping around steaming vents and gurgling pools of superheated muds and fluids. At one place we were outfitted with a digital thermometer which brought the real danger of the area to life with frequent and ominous temperature readings exceeding 70 degrees celsius. Often there was no visual warning of the lurking hazard and it led to plenty of excited debate about where and where not to step or climb. We arrived back to our starting point of the 2 kilometer loop with skin un-scalded but awareness universally raised regarding the thermal properties of even innocent looking trails in NZ.

The other big hit in Rotorua was taking a gently swaying gondola up the 300m rise of mount Ngongotaha, where we then had several options about how to hurl ourselves back to the base of the mountain. We first chose to luge down the switch backing paved slopes, reaching exhilarating but not lethal velocities. The small wheeled carts hugged the road and thankfully braked without  the need for gymnastic effort. We wove our way down for at least 15 minutes, shouting taunts and encouragements to each other until coming to a bumpy halt. Scrambling to our feet we elected to hop on the nearby T bar lift to hoist ourselves back to the top so that the kids could zip-line back to the bottom. The 10 meters off the ground, 600 metre long, lightning fast descent elicited shrieks of terrified fun from our two adventure seekers. Once we got the kids back up to the top yet again, we all took some time to appreciate the fabulous views of the lovely lakelands. The weird green blue hue at the far end of the lake, due to seeping sulphur, only added to the lovely scene below us where the tidy town of Taupo was nestled along the long lake at the foot of a ring of small mountains. This view, on the heels of countless other handsome and fair scenes afforded by this land of wild landscapes induced me to state, as I already had on a number of occasions….”ahh, New Zealand, you have done it again”.

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